I am four years old. Then five, then six, seven. Even when I’ve learned how to read, the routine doesn’t change. The book comes out from its place on the shelf in the evening after my father is home from work. He lies back on propped up pillows, my brother and I lolling next to him. Even though my mother can read the book for herself, she wants to listen in as well; when my father reads from the book, it becomes funnier, hysterically funny. We know all the poems backward, but he only has to start reading and we laugh till our stomachs hurt.
It is a book of nonsense verse in Bengali, populated by a collection of violent oddballs—our favourite is a poem about a head clerk who leaps up from his gentle afternoon snooze convinced his moustache has been stolen. Everyone around him is flummoxed. He is shown his face in a mirror. Your moustache is intact, look! But this enrages him further: that moth-eaten, filthy, tatty broom! They have heads filled with dung if they call that his moustache. It’s been stolen. He will scrape the thief’s scalp with a spade in revenge.
The other poems have wildly improbable scenarios too. Many of them are about killjoys who never smile. People are malicious or credulous or just plain stupid. Adult preoccupations really were as idiotic and futile as they appeared, the poems told children.
Abol Tabol was written and illustrated by Sukumar Ray. It was published on September 19th, 1923 and he died ten days before it came out. He was only thirty-six. His book has never been out of print since.
All my singing ends in sleep, goes the last line of the last poem in the book. My father died at fifty-seven, on the day that happened to be the sixty-fourth anniversary of the book’s publication. But not before he had planted the book and its language, Bengali, in my head.
I was born in Calcutta. My family spoke Bengali at home, I learnt the Bengali script in kindergarten, read children’s stories in the language and even wrote little rhymes in it. When I was seven, we left the place. In our new cities, we had new languages to learn—India has more than twenty languages. I learned Hindi and Sanskrit, picked up a smattering of Telugu, spoke the Hyderabadi dialect.
Over the years, I lost my Bengali. The only reason I held on to a memory of the script was the impulse that came upon me now and then to take that frayed old book of nonsense from the shelf and look over the beloved poems—in order to hear my father’s voice in my head.
He sat up with a vicious start and thrashed his limbs about
And rolled his eyes, and cried, "Be quick! I think I'm passing out."
So some call for an ambulance, and some for the police,
And someone warns "He'll try to bite, so gently if you please."
In midst of this, with thund'ring voice and features grim and swollen,
The Baboo roars, "Confound you all! My whiskers have been stolen!"
(This more or less untranslatable book of poems was translated in the mid-1980s by Sukanta Chaudhuri.)
At school, one of our texts was Bibhutibhushan’s Song of the Road, the book from which Satyajit Ray drew his magnificent film. It was the English translation by T.W. Clark and Tarapada Mukherjee and although it was moving and beautiful, I became exasperated with myself for having to reach it at second-hand. This was a language I knew. I used to write in it. Why was I having to read the book in translation?
On one trip to Calcutta, I bought a stack of Bengali fiction. From the moment I had found The Golden Goblet, Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s spellbinding story of Ranofer the orphan’s lone battle against tomb raiders, all the fiction I had read was in English. My friends knew that, and they killed themselves laughing. “You’ll read what?”
With grim determination I added a Bengali-English dictionary to the pile. Watch this space, I said, brandishing my new dictionary at the merry-eyed sceptics.
It was a plod. The type felt maddeningly small. I discovered that literary Bengali was nothing like the language we spoke at home. The pages were a blur of gibberish. I had the dictionary open more often than my book. I was trying to plough through the collected fiction of Tagore with the language skills of a child in primary school.
That was fifteen years ago. Now I read quicker and there are fewer words I need to look up. Most of my reading is still in English, but there is a rich, different world of words I can reach if I want to. If my father were around, I might have read nonsense poems to him for a change.